Monday, January 20, 2014

Keep The Story Moving

After my last post, David sent me an email that had one simple question in it.

"And how DOES one pace oneself?"   

I've thought a great deal about that in the intervening time. This is not an easy question to answer. Much as the currently ubiquitous snowflakes are all different for one another, so too is each and every story. Thus, what works for one story will likely not be as successful for the next. With that in mind, I will discuss only how I would want a story to progress.

David has always told us that a story is like an iceberg. The part above water is the actual story, while the large portion below the water is the back story. That part is rarely seen; hinted at and alluded to frequently, but never fully realized. It is a necessary part to the story as it narrative will not float without it. In my opinion, stories (especially the two I mentioned last time) that delve too deep into the back story or dwell too long on details that could easily be summarized are those that fail with pacing. The thread of the story gets lost in the mire of "histo-facts" or day to day occurrences of the characters. I believe that these things should be used to evoke a sense of depth in a story much as one would get a sense of magnitude of the iceberg from the shadowed outline below the cold blue surface.

In my opinion, a story with good pacing is one that grabs hold of the reader and pulls them along the storyline. I'm not saying that every story has to be an adventure, though that is my preference. But still, any story must keep moving in order to keep the reader's interest. Something has to happen in each and every chapter. It doesn't have to be a major event each time, but there must be something. It's not enough to have characters sitting about a table explaining the crux of the story to a novice while drinking ale. Nor does the author need to spend countless pages describing the details and politics of the world in which the story is set. If you are to add these details, they must be relevant  to the story (I cannot stress this enough) and succinct.

A good example of pacing is The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. Now, here is a story that requires intense amounts of back story for the reader to even begin to understand it. It begins easily enough with Arthur Dent trying to stop the town council from bulldozing his house. It gets complicated from there. And yet, through the aid of frequent explanations from the Guide (yes, I know it was a gimmick, but it was effective and that's what matters) and Ford Prefect's occasional exposition, the reader knows everything they need to follow along in Mr. Adams version of the universe. Adams, himself, writes about this in the latter half of the Restaurant at the End of the Universe. He writes in this section that many readers have asked him about things in the novels that he has not given further detail. The case in point was what happened after Arthur and the Golgafrinchan woman met. Did they get on? Did they co-habitate in the cave? Adams answer was this: it wasn't relevant to the story. It did nothing to move the story along, so he did not write about it.

I know I've prattled on a bit, but I feel that this is an important subject. Developing this skill, in my mind, is crucial to keeping an engaging story.

"Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted." - Kurt Vonnegut.


  1. Love the Vonnegut quote-- relevant!

  2. I love the idea of a story that is buried beneath the surface with so much more with which we as readers can image and struggle. This makes the adventure something we can own and be a part of.
    Certainly, belonging to a story is a separate issue from pacing, but these two together are a wonderful recipe that creates magic.

  3. Another thing to remember when considering what to include and what to leave out is that a good story should have elements that are like a good joke: a good joke let's the listener "get" the punchline, and similarly, in fiction, the reader usually LIKES TO FIGURE THINGS out. Nothing worse than the inept joke teller who gives the punchline and then repeats it and says something like, "Get it? The two donkeys are like....blah blah blah..." Joke ruined. But also, like a joke, our fiction needs to give just enough so the reader CAN get it! BTW, did you hear the one about....